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Jordanian City Saddled With Unwanted Fame

Some residents of Zarqa aren't convinced that one of their own is the mastermind behind the three deadly hotel bombings in Amman.

November 12, 2005|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

ZARQA, Jordan — Rami Abu Ahmed is no admirer of his notorious former neighbor, whom he considers a garden-variety thug. But Ahmed is not convinced that Abu Musab Zarqawi and his Islamic militant group in Iraq were responsible for this week's hotel bombings in the nation's capital.

"Jordan is targeted by many other groups, so you can't tell if Zarqawi was behind it," the 20-year-old Ahmed said Friday, sitting in his living room down the dusty street from the two-story home still occupied by Zarqawi's relatives.

The hotel bombings, whose official death toll stood at 57 Friday, and a claim of responsibility by Zarqawi's group, have forced residents of this shopworn industrial city to confront the disturbing possibility that one of their own had killed dozens of people -- most of them Jordanians -- in the name of Islam.

The attacks also have brought uncomfortable new scrutiny to the working-class streets where Zarqawi developed a reputation as a tough before turning to hard-line Islam more than a decade ago. Zarqawi, who served three years in a Jordanian prison and whose nom de guerre means "of Zarqa," has been tied to a campaign of suicide bombings and other attacks in Iraq against U.S. and Iraqi forces and foreign contract workers.

Many people in Zarqawi's old neighborhood, a collection of drab concrete-block buildings set against a wall of limestone, won't discuss him for fear of drawing the attention of Jordanian security officials or watchful neighbors.

A pair of journalists were stopped and briefly questioned by plainclothes agents Friday who had received a report that interviews were being conducted in the neighborhood.

"What we are hearing [about who carried out the bombings] is only from the media, and we don't know if it's true," said Munther, a 31-year-old neighbor who declined to give his last name. "I don't believe it. He is from this country.... Zarqawi is a Jordanian and all his family are Jordanians. He would never harm his country."

But Jordanian officials appear all but certain that the bombing operation was the work of Zarqawi, whose group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, has claimed responsibility for the attacks as well as for a failed rocket attack in August in the port of Aqaba.

A day after first claiming responsibility for Wednesday's bombings on a website, the group posted another announcement Friday, saying a married couple and two others had carried out the suicide attacks at the Radisson SAS, the Grand Hyatt and the Days Inn. The Amman hotels were popular with foreign visitors, including journalists, U.S. officials and contractors on their way to Iraq. Most of the victims, however, were Jordanians.

It was impossible to verify the authenticity of either posting.

In Zarqa, as most everywhere in the country, residents voiced shock and outrage at the attacks, the deadliest of which struck a Jordanian wedding banquet in the Radisson.

The residents said about half a dozen of those killed in the nearly simultaneous bombings were from Zarqa, a city of about 1.2 million half an hour's drive east of Amman.

In the commercial district down the road from Zarqawi's family home, several residents also expressed skepticism about the claims of responsibility.

One vendor said he doubted Zarqawi was even alive.

But residents in Zarqa uniformly condemned the attacks--and Zarqawi, too, if he was responsible for ordering them.

"Whoever is behind it, he is wrong. It is a crime," said Issam Qudommi, a 53-year-old finance manager whose cousin was killed in the Hyatt blast. "It's illogical what he is doing -- bad for Islam and all Arabs."

Arwa Yousef, 33, a homemaker wearing a head covering favored by observant Muslim women, said she was especially worried that attacks in the name of Islam were harming the image of Muslims worldwide.

She said it had become easy to lure young, uneducated men into a fanatical brand of religion that used Islamic teachings to breed hatred.

"I don't know why people are harming our prophet and Islam this way," she said.

Yousef was on her way to her niece's wedding but said her heart wasn't really in it. She had skipped the hairdresser and was going in slacks. Yousef said the bombing tragedy had sapped her family's enthusiasm for celebration. There would be no wedding banquet.

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